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The war in Ukraine is the top issue for the NATO defense ministers' meeting

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

NATO defense ministers are meeting today in Brussels. Ukraine will be at the top of the agenda, but they'll also probably be talking about Donald Trump's remarks a few days ago that called into question the future of the alliance. Reporter Teri Schultz is in Brussels covering NATO. She joins us now. Teri, he's done this before. Trump took a swipe at NATO members who are spending less than 2% of their GDP on defense. He said those countries are going to be on their own if Russia attacks them. How has that landed in Brussels?

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Well, A, this has been the topic of virtually every NATO-related conversation I've had all this week. Now, everyone knew there would be nasty rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign, but I don't think anyone could have imagined a suggestion for Russia to actually attack allies. And that's renewed fears here about things like how Europe could defend itself if Trump pulls out of NATO or what would happen to the nuclear-weapons-based security guarantees that are largely dependent on the U.S., and then whether Trump would abandon Ukraine completely, which would virtually ensure a Russian victory in a country that borders NATO.

MARTÍNEZ: So what's being said then at NATO headquarters?

SCHULTZ: Well, the first way that it was immediately obvious how absolutely shocking this was, is that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said something about it, and that was already on Sunday. Stoltenberg spent four years largely holding his tongue while Trump, when president, bashed NATO. And he doesn't usually comment on political campaigns, domestic ones. This morning, heading into the meeting of defense ministers, he said again, NATO solidarity must be solid.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: Any suggestion that we are not there to protect and defend all allies will undermine the security of all of us.

SCHULTZ: Stoltenberg also clearly wants American voters to understand that NATO protects them, too, and it's not, as Trump tries to portray it, the U.S. unilaterally protecting a bunch of freeloaders.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, but isn't it true that the U.S. is pulling the weight for other NATO members?

SCHULTZ: Well, to some extent, yes. The U.S. is the most powerful military in the world, and it spends more on defense in terms of its economy than most other countries. Last year, that was around 3.5% of GDP. But - and NATO members have pledged to spend at least 2% of their GDP, but only 18 of the 31 countries actually meet that benchmark 10 years on. And to be honest, Stoltenberg and other NATO officials actually have found it somewhat useful in the past to have a U.S. president hounding the allies to spend more, even if Trump doesn't really seem to care that this refers to spending more on their own militaries and not paying the U.S., or not even paying into some joint NATO budget.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so then where does this leave the alliance right now?

SCHULTZ: Well, Europeans are very anxious, and they're looking at how they could go it alone in some way if they lose key U.S. support. They're also talking about launching some kind of charm offensives aimed at Trump, should he be reelected, and paying more attention to issues he cares about. I talked to Minna Alander from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. And Finland is the newest member of the alliance, having just joined last year after years of military nonalignment. And she says there's deep unease that there's absolutely nothing European allies could do to change Trump's lack of commitment to NATO.

MINNA ALANDER: There's always the argument to be made on a more general level, why should America care? Why should America protect Europe, or why should America contribute to European security?

SCHULTZ: And those questions wouldn't change even if every NATO country spent, say, 10% of their GDP on their militaries. And that's what's worrying allies the most.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Teri Schultz in Brussels. Teri, thanks.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Teri Schultz